In the past couple weeks, I’ve received comments from visitors to our church that went something like this: “I’m not a believer at all, but I really like your sermons.” I want to take those as compliments, but something about them cuts me to the core as a preacher. The statements aren’t said in a “You’ve helped me see the light!” way. They’re said in an “I can listen to you without feeling any challenge to my non-belief” way.
I guess I should be happy they are listening at all, which is a good starting point. At least they’re in church and not out reading Richard Dawkins or holding ACLU fundraisers. That argument may be a bit trite, but they have a better chance of having their hearts strangely warmed in the pews on Sunday morning than lying on their couch reading Ayn Rand. At least I hope they do.
But what does this say about me as a preacher? I love the teaching element of a sermon, and admit to on occasion emphasizing that aspect over the inspirational part. OK, more than on occasion. There’s just so much good stuff in the Good Book to learn! Give me a passage to exegete or a context to set up and I’m a happy camper. If faith is more caught than taught, I figure I’ll cover the teaching and let the Spirit orchestrate the catching.
I’m reading a book right now called Comedy at the Edge, which tells the history of stand-up comedy as it moved from the Borscht-belt era one-liners of the 50s and 60s to the gritty, visceral social commentary of the 70s. Think of the difference between Bob Hope and George Carlin. Hope and his ilk set their audience at ease, telling innocuous jokes about relatable domestic situations (“Let me tell you about my wife’s cooking…”). But Carlin put his audience on the edge of their seats as he challenged conventional understandings of decency, morality, and etiquette, with routines like “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Or in a sermon, for that matter.
My sermons? Maybe they are more like Henny Youngman than Lenny Bruce. Maybe I try too hard to make people feel welcome and comfortable, and therefore don’t try to dislodge them from that comfort, even momentarily, to consider what more a life of faith has to offer them. Maybe I default too much to my own comfort zone of didactics, hoping to instruct rather than inspire or, even more pointedly, challenge. It’s easy for atheists to like your sermons if you never say anything that challenges their worldview.
So, should I want atheists to NOT like my sermons? Should I strive to have them wrinkling their noses, furrowing their brows, storming out of the sanctuary at my audacious claims about Jesus of Nazareth, tripping over the gospel stumbling blocks that I throw before them? Well, that doesn’t sound very hospitable to me, and I fall back to the reasoning that they can’t hear you if they’re not there. Plus, I have my own integrity to maintain, such as it is. I don’t want to bait them in with softball sermons, then bludgeon them over the head with the 500-pound Good News. I want my “yes” to be “yes,” even if their “no” continues to be a “no.”
This preaching business is a nutty thing. Just when you think you’ve said something worth hearing, the cricket chirps are deafening. And some throw-away line you inserted as a transition from here to there becomes the lifeboat to which someone clings during an existential storm. Or, for better or worse, someone credits you for making an impact in their lives with something you said, even if you didn’t actually say it! True story. Darn that Holy Spirit.
I’m not going to try to tick off the atheists. I’m also not going to pander to them. I’m going to continue preaching the gospel as I’ve been called to do. If I don’t provide enough dynamite to dislodge the non-believers among us (and, really, isn’t that ALL of us at some point?), then the blame is solely mine. But I also pray that God can take my words, as imperfect as they may be, and in the distance between my mouth and someone’s ears, fashion something worth hearing…and something worthy of a response.